Wednesday 17 December 2014

Kim Bielenberg: Churches won’t like Obama’s attack on segregated schools

Published 17/06/2013 | 12:35

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast June 17
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast June 17

THERE was the usual blarney as the Obamas arrived in Northern Ireland, but there was also a slight edge to the US President’s speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

The first instinct of a US President visiting this island is to avoid arguments that might prove politically controversial.

Once we had got over the familiar O’Bama jokes about his Irish background and his distant Moneygall cousin “Henry the Eighth”, he delivered an oration of more substance than that in College Green in Dublin in 2011

In the Waterfront speech, he criticised schools that are the bedrock of our education system North and South– those that are segregated along religious lines.

"If towns remain divided - if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs; if we can't see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden - that too encourages division and discourages co-operation."

Obama likened this division to racial segregation in America when he was a boy, when cities had separate drinking fountains and lunch counters for blacks and whites.

While the Catholic and Protestant churches deserve credit for encouraging reconciliation during the Troubles it could be argued that they also perpetuated division.

No amount of violence or inter-communal strife severed their lingering attachment to schools divided on religious lines.

The bishops and more conservative members of their congregation will not welcome Obama’s remarks.

The involvement of the churches in Irish schools remains politically contentious.

Obama said: “There are walls that still stand.”

The event in the Waterfront Hall was meticulously stage-managed so that America would wake up to pictures of the President and First Lady delivering messages of hope.

Apple-cheeked Belfast teenagers, neatly dressed in school uniforms, were the backdrop.

Michelle is increasingly the one who scatters these events with stardust.  She is such a composed speaker that it is possible to see her following the example of Hillary Clinton and standing for high office herself.

Barack Obama ensured there is one way of delivering a speech and ensuring that that you receive a standing ovation, and that is to have part of the audience already standing behind you.

According to the BBC, one or two members of the audience were so overcome with excitement that they almost fainted.

As usual, Obama offered us hope on a grey day.  “This island is now chic,” he said, and we’d like to think he was sincere. Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr President.

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